After spending half an hour past my appointment time, waiting in the starkly lit, sparsely furnished office of the French Consulate in Atlanta, I calmed my nerves with the thought that the lady behind the glass seemed nice. She had treated the tall, graceful woman with fluent French before me with the kind deference you’d expect from a salesperson at Lush. I didn’t think it would be outrageous to expect the same treatment. After all, my French wasn’t bad and besides, Glass Lady spoke fluent English anyway. She looked like my mother. I was dressed to the nines, and had every required form I could think of. I had little to be nervous about.
Or at least, I thought I had little to be nervous about.
After Glass Lady dismissed the lovely woman with a smile, she spat out my name. “Nicolette?” I stood up, armed with my documents, and walked to the little seat before the window.
Glass Lady spat again. “Nicolette?”
“Hello!” I said in my usual bright tone reserved for strangers. It did nothing to soften her
suddenly rock hard facial features. Her eyes were cut like jagged stones, her cheekbones jutting out above sunken cheeks, all of it thrown into sharp relief beneath the lights. I crossed my legs politely, and set my purse beside me.
“Hallo,” she said down her nose, wrinkling it as if she’d smelled something awful. She spent several minutes tapping on her computer. I felt my smile falter.
I fumbled with my folder full of forms as she sighed. I handed her everything, suddenly shaking. What if it wasn’t enough? I had checked the site but it had different requirements for the different types of visas, and I wasn’t sure whether to apply for the student visa or the six-month visa. The study abroad office had not been enlightening. The woman who was supposed to be my advisor hadn’t even known how to apply for a French visa. I was on my own. I placed my documents into the metal basin under the little glass flap in the window between us.
“Where is the copy of your passport?” Glass Lady sighed, as if she was expecting me to forget.
“The copy?” I asked.
“Yes, I need a copy of your passport,” Glass Lady snapped. “Where is the copy of your passport?”
I swooped down to my purse and pulled out the little card that was a tiny replica of my passport.
“I have the card?”
“I need a copy.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a copy. I didn’t know I needed one.”
Glass Lady sighed. “It was on the website.”
“I’m sorry.” I set my jaw. I will not cry in a dusty corner of Lenox Mall on a Thursday. I will not.
Glass Lady sighed again. “Where is the second page?” She held up a copy of my itinerary. I shook my head.
“That was all my dad gave me. There is no second page.”
Glass Lady whipped the paper to the side before I’d even finished my sentence. She sighed again, tapping away. She made a copy of my passport with the copier machine next to her.
“Where is your application?”
At this question, I was completely puzzled. I wanted to say, This is the application. Me, sitting here, watching you launch questions at me like bombs while you rip through my carefully curated documents. This is it.
Instead, I batted my eyes and said, “Application?”
Glass Lady made a strangled sort of noise, took two pieces of paper from each side of her desk, stapled them together, and threw them into the little metal basin. The force of her throw did not open the flap, and only succeeded in bending the pages. She ripped them out of the basin, banged open the flap, and shoved them toward me with the rest of my documents.
“Go over there and fill this out,” she snapped, pointing at the clipboard beside me. I had watched the graceful woman before me fill out a similar application, minus the throwing and shoving. And she was allowed to stay at the little window while she filled it out.
“Richard?” Glass Lady called before I had even stood up. A lanky, pimpled boy stood up.
I stood, gathered up all my documents and tried to stuff them back into my folder. I picked up my purse.
“Richard?” called Glass Lady again, even though he was standing right next to me. I went back to my seat to fill out the application.
I was done in less than ten minutes, but I had been sitting in the office long enough to know that it could be half an hour before I could be seen again. When Richard finally got up, it was just me and Glass Lady left in the little room. I approached the window again, and placed the application with all my documents in the little basin. Glass Lady didn’t look at me, but began to tap away on her computer.
Glass Lady flipped through the application and all of my documents. She flipped through them all again. She looked around her desk, and then under it.
“Where are your photos?” I held my breath.
Both Glass Lady’s shoulders and her face dropped, as if completely floored that anyone could be so stupid as to forget their photos. She set her mouth in a tight, thin line.
“Yes, I need two photos of you for your file. If I don’t have the photos, I cannot process your file.”
“So you need to go to the nearest pharmacy and come back with the photos.”
“Go and get the photos, and then come back.”
“Come back at 1:30.”
“Goodbye,” I whispered. She kept all my documents, including my passport, leaving me feeling naked.
I fought tears as I left the little office. I texted my mom and my roommates. I pulled an Emma Thompson mid-Love Actually and steeled myself long enough to ask the security guard where the nearest bathroom was. Once barricaded there, I let go and cried. I didn’t want to go to France. I wanted to stay home forever, I never wanted to go back to Agnes Scott or to that stupid little office, and I certainly never wanted to feel so humiliated ever again.
The bathroom door opened, and I got myself together just in time to prevent the plump young woman in an argyle sweater from suspecting anything. I blew my nose once more and left the mall.
I drove down the street to the nearest CVS. I told the cashier there I needed photos. She picked up a phone, flourishing her long, designer nails and called for Peter to come to the front. Peter, a squat man in glasses, grinned as soon as he saw me.
“Hello, young lady!” he said. “How are you today?
“I-I’m good,” I said with a watery smile. I was back among my people.
“What can I do for you?”
“I need some photos for my visa application.”
“Ah! Congratulations! Where are you going?” asked Peter as he led me to the little corner of the CVS.
A small, mousy old woman with pince-nez was sitting right in the corner where Peter needed me to be. He placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Ma’am, can I ask you to move? This young lady needs her picture taken.”
“Oh!” cried the woman. “Yes, of course!”
“Thank you,” said Peter, and he pulled down the photo shade and prepared the camera.
“Where are you off to, dear?” asked the woman.
“France,” I said, trying not to look miserable.
“France!” cried the woman. “Oh, how lovely!”
At that point, I had to stop talking while Peter took my picture.
“Perfect,” he said with another grin. “Let me just develop these for you. How many would you like?”
“Two, please,” I said.
“Two, coming up!”
“I just love France,” said the old woman while we waited. “My daughter traveled there to study abroad in college. When do you leave?”
“December 29th,” I said. I felt my panic ease a little.
“Oh, so soon! You must be so excited,” said the woman. Peter smiled at me from behind the photo developing machine.
“Oh, yes,” I said.
The old woman and I talked the entire ten minutes we stood there, and every minute she talked, I began to feel better. I even mentioned my fears concerning homesickness.
“You’ll be just fine,” she said, patting my arm. “You will have so much fun, the time will pass so quickly, and before you know it, you’ll be back home with your mom!” I smiled again, holding back tears of relief. After a solid two hours of being humiliated, her kindness flowed over me like a hot shower after a long day.
“Your photos, darlin’,” said Peter, handing me a little package that read, ‘Bon Voyage!’ He rang me up and then we parted with many a “Goodbye!” and “Good luck!” on their end and a rejuvenated “Thank you!” on my end.
I went back to the Consulate but it was only 1:00 PM. I decided to treat myself to Chick-Fil-A in the mall cafeteria before having to face Glass Lady once more.
At 1:30, I made my way back to the little dusty corner of Lenox. I went through the security again, and sat in my same chair in the little room.
And I waited.
1:35. She must have been enjoying her lunch break.
1:40. The shades were drawn over the window.
1:45. I was the only one sitting there. I wondered whether the lights were motion-activated.
1:50. I noticed there was another window and chair on the other side of the room.
1:55. Are the French always so late?
2:00. Finally, I saw a light come on in the room, and heard heels clacking around behind the glass.
And then the shades flew up and Glass Lady stood there, her hands on her hips, surveying her tiny kingdom. She sat down and looked around her desk approvingly. Took a moment to rearrange something minute before she noticed me and motioned for me to come to the window.
I put the little picture package in the metal basin.
“Thank you, you can go,” said Glass Lady.
“Thank you,” I said to the floor. “Have a good day,” I added, more out of habit than anything else. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Glass Lady smile before I turned on my heel and left.
Two weeks later, I got a call from the dusty little office. They were missing the first page of my itinerary and my file was on hold.
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes, we need your return date to the United States or else we cannot process your file,” said a heavily accented French man on the other end.
“I understand,” I said. “I did not have it at the time of my appointment because we did not know when I would be returning.”
“Yes but we need to know now or else we cannot process your file,” said the man, louder than before.
“We are very overwhelmed here with applications,” the man cut across me, his voice getting louder as he spoke. “You’re leaving very soon! Very soon! And if we do not know when you are returning to the United States, we cannot process your file! And then you will not get a visa!”
“Now find your return dates and send them to me. I need an official document.”
“Yes, sir,” I said through my teeth. “Where do I send it?”
“Send them to the visa department email. I need an official document or else I cannot process your file.”
“Thank you, goodbye.”
My dad bought my return ticket and sent me the itinerary promptly. I emailed the office my full itinerary even though they had the second page. I included my visa appointment receipt with my file number. I waited.
The next day, after pointedly not talking with my mom about what would happen if they did not return my passport in time, I received another phone call. I recognized the number. I sighed and answered.
“Nicolette?” I almost didn’t recognize the lowered voice of the nasally man on the other end.
“Hi,” he said shortly, as if saying ‘Hi’ were beneath him. “I am calling to tell you that you can pick up your visa at the Consulate in Atlanta on Thursday by 5.”
I sank into a chair.
“Thursday?” I whispered.
“Thank you, goodbye.”
I looked up at my mom, smiling. “I got my visa!”
My mom grinned. “That’s great! Now you don’t have to worry about it.
“Yeah,” I said, almost laughing with relief. “Yeah.”
“Can you run these paper towels to your dad at the office?”
I was only too glad.